Women Now

The tech hustler Annabelle Kwok who is our Her World Young Woman Achiever 2019

AI whiz kid Annabelle Kwok is a lethal combination of talent and youth. She’s intimidating on paper, but meet her in person and any apprehension dissipates – this year’s Her World Young Woman Achiever is an infectious ball of fun
 

 

Savvy kickstarter

Photo: The Straits Times

 

Annabelle’s approach – technical but thoughtful, youthful but sophisticated – has resonated among the “cool uncles of hardware programming”, much to her amusement. She got to know these programmers through hackathons – competitions where participants create a prototype of a sellable product in one to two days.

After graduating from NTU, she bought a mini processor and tinkered with it. When that got “a little boring”, she signed up for the competitions. “When I got to know the community, they asked if I needed help and gave me a lot of guidance.”

 

 

 

The then 19-year-old won second place at her first hackathon, and clinched her first win at her second, the IOT Hackathon 2015, organised by A*Star. After that, organisers and sponsors were more than happy to fund the projects she undertook. It was then that people started to take notice. She was scouted to work on projects for cable channel National Geographic (she built robots used in its shows).

Other job offers started pouring in as well. But it wasn’t just because Annabelle’s products were innovative – she was savvy, too.

At one hackathon, she created a smart shoe insole to aid movement, and that resonated with the sponsor’s theme of prioritising health.

In 2015, she landed her first corporate job as an offline community manager at tech startup Garena, where she headed community development for e-commerce venture Shopee. A year later, she left and co-founded hardware start-up Smartcow. There, she designed a plug-andplay deployment device called Tera, a circuit board that could process and store lots of data.

 

 

Annabelle went to Canada to have it built when she couldn’t get the support she needed in Singapore. Her return to the city coincided with the launch of government-owned innovation platform SG Innovate, and Annabelle used its office space. That was when Tera got noticed. Companies began knocking on Smartcow’s door, and the start-up became known for offering hardware solutions for companies and businesses that were keen on integrating an AI system. She left Smartcow in 2017.

A month after her departure, she started Neuralbay. The difference between the two: Smartcow is focused on AI hardware, while Neuralbay is an AI software company that specialises in vision analytics. Annabelle has worked with big firms in the aviation and automation industries, and one of her clients is the multinational Ferrero Group.

Asked how much Neuralbay is worth, she says: “Let’s just say that we’re busy with projects for the next two years, and that will help bring revenue to pay for our operating costs and grow the business.” Neuralbay has a team of five in Singapore, and a team of mainly freelancers in Indonesia.

The Singapore team works from the Pixel office at One North, while Annabelle splits her time at work between home and Pixel.

 

 

Despite her busy schedule, the go-getter has always found space for charity work, and to pursue other interests. She explains: “There are many elements to what I do. I run a business. I create tech. I have hobbies to maintain my sanity (she has a black belt in taekwondo, and is a licensed windsurfer). When you do the smaller things, you develop better hand-eye coordination. It does something to your brain, too – it keeps you alert.”

 

 

 

How to work the mind and body the Annabelle way? Join the circus, of course. She performed with Singapore’s Bornfire circus troupe at the Chingay Parade 2016. Last year, the avid runner took part in a marathon in North Korea.

 

Giving back

 

Work and play aside, the kid-genius says sensibly: “When you run a start-up, it’s easy to have tunnel vision and worry about money. But when you do charity work, it helps to put life in perspective. It’s a reminder of what’s important.” So for the last seven years, Annabelle has been volunteering at Make-a-Wish Singapore, which grants wishes to children with terminal illnesses. “The kids are the resilient ones; it’s the parents who break down,” she observes. “They are the ones who need support, so I focus on them as well.”

She is quick to point out that as much as she wants to help others, the big picture for Neuralbay is what Annabelle describes as a “Robin Hood model”: taking from those who have, and giving to those who are in need. She recognises that AI has a recyclable element – if you build a technology for one company, you can customise and modify elements for another firm.

 

 

For instance, a software developed for body posture can be used for both a big security firm as well as a physiotherapy clinic. “The plan is that when we build models for large companies, and we see an area that can be recycled for a smaller company, we’ll ask them for permission to recycle it for SMEs,” she says. If they agree, Neuralbay would then offer the recycled AI software to SMEs at an affordable cost of $800 to $2,000. However, Annabelle is quick to add that she does accept projects with no recyclable elements – if they offer new things to learn.

Or if she just likes what they have, as in the case of the Ferrero Group. “I like chocolate!” she giggles. The next challenge, she points out, is how to give the AI software to people who aren’t good with technology.

 

The real deal

 

With her mind ticking all the time, one wonders if she has time for sleep and, perhaps, dating. Annabelle chuckles.

“I’m single, lah,” she declares. “I suppose someone who’s musically inclined would click better with me, someone genuine – and he must be smarter than I am!”

Lifestyle-wise, Annabelle has been on a ketogenic diet for two years, and blogs about it.

She also attends wing chun classes three times a week, training under an instructor who was a disciple of Ip Ching, youngest son of famed martial artist Ip Man. “I try to eat healthy and stay fit so I’m physically and mentally efficient,” she says.

And efficient she is. Besides running Neuralbay, designing new technology and contributing to charity, Annabelle travels the world to give tech talks.

 

 

On whether she’s intimidated by the other, much older speakers, she says: “When I get up there, I go straight to the point. People usually worry about how their hair looks or what to wear, but I’m always worried about people getting bored with what I have to say for that one hour!”

Asked how her parents feel about her achievements, she laughs: “My parents don’t praise me. My mum went for one of my talks and I asked her how I fared. She said, ‘You ah, okay lah. The other speaker was good’.” It’s easy to see why people are taken by Annabelle.

Beneath that intellect, she’s fun, approachable, compassionate, and down to earth.

 

 

When you run a start-up, it's easy to have tunnel vision and worry about money. But when you can do charity work, it helps to put life in perspective. It's a timely reminder of what's important.

 

Her remarkable ability to succinctly spell out the stunning labyrinth of AI to the layman underlines her in-depth understanding of the subject and its potential uses.

The #girlboss continues: “Tech has a very great impact – there’s a lot of potential to affect lives and businesses. It’s the reason Neuralbay was created to make technology accessible.”

 

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